It seems odd, to me, that “Gretschen Hofner” are about as wellknown as the really early short films of Jan Svankmajer (hipsterness intensifies) since they have a sound so uniquely distinctive, like a sort of punchy funky post-post-punk jazzy violiny shot of caffeine straight to the eyeball, that you’d think, hope, it would catch on. Alas, it was not to be, until your humble Hipster Hovel harbinger bought them to your attention. The albums I’ve reviewed before have had their fans, but not this one, bar one exceptionally lengthy MySpace post that I include here. They seem pretty much lost at sea, and that’s a great shame, because all hipster pretensions aside, this is excellent music, sincere, catchy, witty, strange, challenging, and, most importantly, complete; as John Peel said of Teenage Kicks, there is little that can be taken away, or added to, this band to alter or improve it. It’s such a whole (and such a /good/ whole) that, as I say, it confuses and saddens me that there’s not more of a fanbase for these folks. They deserve a revival.
I could easily write about any of their releases, since they only did a dozen or so singles/EPs, a few 10” rarities, and one album, Maria Callous (which contains a number of those singles anyway). I probably will return to this album at a later date, but for now I turn my eye (and my words) to their 1996 EP, Betty Page Is Back. There is mild confusion around this single; I own one with a pink cover and a full body shot of Betty Page cracking a whip, yet the only one I can find for sale online is a whitegrey cover with Ms Page turning to look at us. Discogs yields no clues, and when I bought it from Amazon it was listed as “alternative cover”; this wouldn’t mean anything if the songs were the same, but they’re not.
My tracklisting is thus-
Betty Page Is Back
Box of Tricks
Born To Be Bad
Note the songs beginning with “b”; if there is one letter this album embodies, it’s the plosive, jutting, mannered “b”. From the opening track, which begins with an ominous, rumbling drum-
beat, a sinister laugh hidden in the mix, and then an upwards swinging bass bit with surf-guitars underneath it all.
Then; "If you don’t look like Betty Page/if you don’t turn me on like Betty Page/if your hair ain’t crow-black to the roots/you can go kiss Betty Page’s boots/like I do!/like I do!"
For those unfamiliar with Betty Page, give her a Google; you are now familiar with Betty Page.
This song is just that; an ode to her (and there are far worse women to write odes to, sexy fiend that she was). The song meanders along on this theme in its smoky, jazzy, loungey way. In fact, I don’t know if “triballounge” is a genre, but that’s what this band is.
The rest of the songs are par excellence, and they kinda remind me of that Talking Heads/Radiohead thing of the lyrics being theme-based, but largely just being phrases pulled out of a hat to go along with the music. This isn’t to say that the lyrics are without their charms, but there’s something to the way the phrases match the music.
Box of Tricks leads you in with a hoedown style jam, before moving into Morricone showdown music; it feels like the soundtrack to the pivotal moment in the Western where the good guy returns to the town to deal out justice. Born To Be Bad feels like a wizened old crow telling you about all the really bad things he’s done in between taking long drags on his endless cigarette (in a jazz club). “She stood aloof/in her torn white dress” and “I need you to degrade me” are wonderfully evocative bits, and “Hell’s kitchen is burning inside” is a wonderful refrain. It then segues, without notice, into White Trash, which feels like a part 2, maybe told from the perspective of the protagonist’s ex-lover, and is equally compelling.
So there you have it; an introduction to a band you need to know about, and one of their most memorable records. In keeping with the hipster theme, on a scale of “one” to “Thom Yorke with a reverb pedal”, it lands in at about a “Jonny Greenwood’s questionable contributions to Kid A”.
Idek what that means. The record is ace though, buy it.
[editor's note : on this column Declan's outdone himself and found a record not available on YouTube or Spotify in full, although you can watch the title track below, which you certainly should do]
(written by declan cochran)